Angered by his legal opinion that some say is anti-gay, more than 1,000 protestors at VCU gather March 10 to demonstrate against Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II (Below right.)TYPICALLY staid, Virginia Commonwealth University long has been a commuter school where students come and go without much political urgency. So it was indeed unusual on March 10 when 1,000 students waving colorful, striped Gay Pride flags and signs saying such things as “Keep Your Gospel off My Gonads” gathered at the Student Commons in protest.
The target was Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Virginia's new and explosively controversial Republican attorney general who had just told VCU and other state colleges that their policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation were invalid.
Cuccinelli, 41, also is stridently against abortion, wants to take state money away from Planned Parenthood and believes that homosexual acts go against natural law. He also sought to revoke the automatic citizenship granted to children of illegal immigrants born in the United States, wants President Barack Obama's birthplace thoroughly studied and considered keeping his newborn seventh child (his other six are home-schooled) from registering for a Social Security number because the federal government could use it to track him down.
Barely two months into office, Cuccinelli had stirred the political pot like no attorney general before him. Typically, the state's top law official has been a steady, reliable lawyer who keeps a low profile while he dishes out legal opinions and protects the political and economic interests of his party and the state's ruling elite.
Not Cuccinelli, who marches to his own drum. Pushing his uniquely personal and deeply felt agenda, Cuccinelli has won praise nationally among an informal but fast-growing network of hard-right activists while earning scorn among university associations, gay-rights groups and officials worried that his strident ideas are out of synch with 21st century America.
While his fellow Republican, Gov. Bob McDonnell, tries to beat back recession with new jobs, Cuccinelli may have hurt Virginia's chances to beat out Maryland and the District of Columbia in winning important new corporate headquarters. One prospect is Northrop Grumman, a major Los Angeles-based defense contractor praised for its diversity and pro-gay employment policies.
Cuccinelli's headline-grabbing moves come at a time when most eyes had been on McDonnell, another social conservative. McDonnell wrote a graduate thesis while at religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia Beach stating that the government should give married heterosexual couples more rights than “cohabiters, homosexuals and fornicators.”
Since the thesis drew attention during his gubernatorial run, McDonnell has been trying to rebrand himself as a conscientious, pragmatic moderate with lofty goals such as streamlining state government. By taking this tack, he won what observers called a smart campaign. Its success seemed to give the Republican Party a new lease on life and McDonnell a bright political future after the debacle of the George W. Bush years and a chance to cash in on disappointment with Obama. So why is Cuccinelli upsetting McDonnell's apple cart?
The answer could define Virginia politics for the next four years. Political analysts are scratching their heads trying to figure out what's happening. “McDonnell is sure pissed at him but there's not much he can do,” says one political analyst who asks not to be identified. An elected official, Cuccinelli doesn't answer to the governor, who tried to quell the anti-Cuccinelli fervor with a late-to-the-game, toothless anti-discrimination statement.
Former VCU political science professor Bob Holsworth says it's likely that both men will present competing agendas, and “which one wins is the $64,000 question.”
That's bunk, retorts state Sen. Donald McEachin, who worked with Cuccinelli and McDonnell in the General Assembly. He says “both men are from the same side of the street.” McEachin tried to push a bill giving gay state workers protection from discrimination and Cuccinelli issued his notorious opinion two days after the bill was tabled in the House of Delegates after passing the Senate.
While the Cuccinelli-McDonnell relationship isn't clear, what is evident is that Cuccinelli has a clear constituency in Virginia and nationally. He's tapping into an emerging national network of states' rights constitutionalists, family values mavens, anti-tax tea partiers, pro-life advocates, gun lobbyists and survivalists who believe that Obama is not a U.S. citizen and that government “black helicopters” will hunt them down for raising the issue.
SO WHO IS Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II? Born in New Jersey, he grew up in Northern Virginia where he became a devout Roman Catholic. He graduated from Gonzaga College High School in Washington in 1986. The elite private school is run by the Jesuit order, known for its academic rigor, and has graduated such notable political conservatives as Pat Buchanan as well as former lieutenant governor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Don Beyer.
Cuccinelli received a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Virginia and a law degree and a master's degree in international commerce from George Mason University. Settling into a small business law practice in Centreville, Cuccinelli attended St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Clifton and, with his wife, Teiro, home-schooled his children.
Family colors much of Cuccinelli's political agenda. He declines to be interviewed by Style Weekly but his Facebook page reflects his love of family. Besides visiting “fellow Republicans” around the state, Cuccinelli says his happiest times are “Winning snowball fights and board games with my children (or losing when they all gang up on me) and playing with Max (our baby), not to mention occasional homework!”
He's fond of a quotation from football great Vince Lombardi: “Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”
Cuccinelli's first political win came in 2002 in a special election after Republican Sen. Warren Barry resigned to take a position on the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. He was re-elected to the Senate in 2003 and 2007, winning the latter by 98 votes.
In Richmond, Cuccinelli quickly built a reputation as an aggressive social and constitutional conservative who fought gays, abortion and illegal immigrants. He proposed laws that would let businesses sue competitors for hiring illegal immigrants and deny unemployment benefits to immigrants unable to speak English in the workplace. He supported such pro-gun laws as letting handgun owners bring their weapons into bars and shielding handgun ownership data from Freedom of Information Act requests. As for labor unions, Cuccinelli said in a campaign interview, “I have a zero-percent AFL-CIO voting record.”
This potion of beliefs was far too toxic for many liberals. In last year's campaign, The Washington Post urged voters in an editorial to shun him, stating, “If he is elected attorney general, Mr. Cuccinelli would drive away qualified lawyers from an office that functions as the state government's law firm and, given his bizarre ideas, he would likely become an embarrassment for the commonwealth.” Cuccinelli easily beat opponent Steve Shannon in the race.
Cuccinelli has loyal backers. Among them are the Family Foundation, the Republican National Coalition for Life and such strong, hard-right Northern Virginia politicians and activists as Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio and Mike Farris, founder of the conservative Patrick Henry College (motto: “For Christ and Liberty”) in Purcellville.
Supervisor Delgaudio has gained fame as a gay-bashing Republican fundraiser. Farris, who criticized McDonnell for opposing Cuccinelli on gay discrimination, has sought to position graduates from his private college in jobs with the federal government in such agencies as the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, where their religion-based, hard-right views will guide them.
Cuccinelli and his wife, Teiro, at his inauguration.INDEED, CUCCINELLI'S AGENDA seems to be not only bringing his ideas of religious morality to Virginia, but also using the attorney general's post as a bully pulpit on national issues.
One of his first acts in office was to state that he would legally oppose any new federal health care bill that would require Virginians to buy health insurance. A few weeks later, he weighed in on global warming. He sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for naming carbon dioxide, believed to contribute to global warming, as a pollutant.
In his petition, he cited controversy over e-mails at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. The school is serving as a data collection and analysis center for a unit of the United Nations that's studying global warming. Cuccinelli cited arguments popular among conservatives opposed to global warming that the flap negates scientific evidence that global warming is occurring.
This past weekend, Cuccinelli again strayed far afield from Richmond when he vowed to sue the federal government over health care. He says he will challenge the health care reform bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 21 claiming that requirements that most U.S. citizens buy health insurance are unconstitutional.
It appears that Cuccinelli's actions are part of a rising tide of state-based opposition to the federal government. His petition against the EPA also was backed by Republican attorneys general in several states including Texas, which is the scene of another controversy because conservatives control the body that approves public school textbooks and propose major changes. “He wants to be seen as the right's version of (New York State) Attorney General Andrew Cuomo who regularly sues big corporations,” says Holsworth.
Some of the legislation that Cuccinelli has backed in this past General Assembly session also has been replicated in such states as Tennessee, South Dakota and Montana. The laws would have banned federal oversight of firearms made and used in those states. In Virginia, the law passed the House of Delegates but was killed in a Senate committee.
Such endeavors are part of a loose, grass-roots movement, some of which is being orchestrated by the four-year-old Tenth Amendment Center, says Josh Eboch, state coordinator for Virginia. The 10th Amendment seeks to limit federal intervention in states' rights and says that Washington must stay away from issues unless specifically authorized by the federal Constitution.
The Tenth Amendment Center backed the state-made firearm bills, but also backs states' rights to approve marijuana for medical use and forbid federal intervention in states' rights to decide whether gays can marry. Eboch says that there isn't a direct correlation between Virginia and the rest of the movement, but he notes that Bob Mims, Cuccinelli's predecessor as attorney general, weighed in on a congressional deal last year to get Nebraska to go along with Democratic plans for health reform if it waived some of that state's Medicaid payments.
“We're not specifically conservative or liberal,” Eboch says. “We were called communist by the Bush administration.”
It also isn't clear where Cuccinelli fits in with the so-called Tea Party movement, which fights taxes and the expansion of federal power but tends to shy away from hard-right social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
A big question is how mainstream Republicans, such as Henrico County's pro-business U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, view Cuccinelli and his allies. They've been notoriously quiet on the issue. One clue of their thinking comes from the traditionally conservative editorial pages of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which endorsed Cuccinelli in last year's campaign.
The editorial writers at the Times-Dispatch typically side with Cantor and buy into the idea that McDonnell has successfully converted from hard-right social conservative to moderate. But the newspaper has come out strongly against Cuccinelli in the gay rights flap, saying that it was “bad law and bad policy.” It may be the first time in decades those editorial pages have criticized a Republican.
In any event, the next four years will be intriguing as McDonnell, who by law can't run for re-election, positions himself for a possible and photogenic future as a vice-presidential candidate in 2012. Cuccinelli knows he has a legitimate political base and he could play to it until 2014 or longer if he's re-elected.
Meanwhile, controversy has drawn lines where they didn't exist. At the March 10 VCU rally, Stephanie Crews, a 21-year-old senior, says, “It makes me happy to go to a school that is so accepting of diversity.”